By Laura Finley
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving whether persons convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors should be prohibited from possessing guns. The case involves James Castleman, who in 2001 pleaded guilty under Tennessee law to one count of misdemeanor domestic violence against the mother of his child.
In 2009, Castleman was found in possession of several guns, which was prohibited by a 1996 law that made it illegal for those who have misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence involving physical force or a deadly weapon to possess guns. Allegedly, Castleman was purchasing weapons and selling them illegally. An appeals court in Cincinnati ruled that the federal law does not apply in Castleman’s case because his domestic violence conviction did not involve physical force.
As a long-time scholar and advocate for victims of domestic violence, I am deeply concerned about the implications should the court overturn the federal law.
First, we know that guns and domestic violence are a lethal mix. Numerous studies have found that the chance of a homicide increases dramatically in domestic violence cases in which the perpetrator has a gun. Of all females killed with firearms, almost two-thirds were murdered by intimate partners. The Violence Policy Center reported that in 2010, more women were shot and killed by partners than by strangers using all other weapons combined.
Second, many offenders are able to plead down to misdemeanor offenses when what they really did was a felony. Were the Supreme Court to exclude misdemeanors that do not involve physical force, the result might be that some very dangerous people are allowed to possess lethal weapons.
Third, advocates know that domestic violence is patterned behavior that escalates. Thus while it may not start with physical force, the non-physical forms of abuse are important signs that the abuse is likely to become physical.
Fourth, there are tremendous issues already with enforcement of the existing laws. A 2002 report to the ranking member of the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary found that between 1998 and 2001, more than 2,800 people who had misdemeanor domestic violence convictions were able to purchase guns without their conviction being detected. Those who purchase guns at gun shows or online are not subject to background checks, thus their misdemeanors or felonies are not detected. Additionally, some state laws, like those in Florida, do not explicitly require the removal or surrender of firearms at the scene of a domestic violence incident.
I hope the Supreme Court has the wisdom and compassion to realize the consequences of any ruling that makes it easier for abusers to obtain guns.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology and Criminology.